The Tourist and the Native: A review of “Life and Debt”

by Jessica Brodeur

Life and Debt is a documentary-style film about Antigua, Jamaica, based off of the book A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid. Several different approaches are taken to expose the underlying reasons for the poverty in Jamaica, and the capitalist free market is examined and critiqued. The filmmaker, Stephanie Black, interviews Michael Manly, the former president of Jamaica, and a member of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which lends money to Jamaica for development aid but on strict conditions. The responses of the two men – among other farmers and representatives – show the two histories of Jamaica: the colonists and the locals, or in modern terms, the tourist and the native. What the international organizations are telling Antiguan’s to do to “develop” is not helping, and is even damaging their few existing industries. The overarching story spans several hundred years: colonialism to decolonization, and today’s struggles as a newly independent country.

The first time I saw Life and Debt, I watched it entirely from an economic and historical point of view. The film skims over the ties between Jamaica and the IMF, decolonization, and struggles faced by farmers, workers, and all natives to Antigua. I found that the film assumes economic knowledge on the part of the viewer, especially concerning the international trade and the free market. It moves very quickly, is slightly difficult to understand because of the heavy accents, and hopes the audience has a good grasp on complex concepts related to colonialism, trade agreements, and neo-liberalism. That being said, the documentary is hardly just about economics: it’s underlying message has to do with human nature, resentment, and small players on the world market (such as Jamaica) being crushed by unevenness.

The second time I watched it, I brought attention to the tones, music, pictures, and the film became a story. The chosen background music was often reggae and occasionally blues, which speak volumes about issues of human rights and freedoms on their own. The upbeat music and beautiful serene scenes of beaches contrasted the message of anger and accusation. The tones that Black tries to recreate from Kincaid’s book are of deep-rooted anger from generations of exploitation, distaste and frustration with a market system that is unable to recognize equal opportunity or compensate those who have been wronged. The narrator doesn’t explain social, economic, or political situations – she lets the interviews, clips from historical documents, and newsreels gives the stories. The narrator’s job was to quote several passages from the book, addressing the viewer – the tourist – in a direct, harsh, yet emotional way.

From initially watching Life and Debt from an academic point of view, it became even more moving the second time. By allowing the playful use of sounds and colours to juxtapose the brutal poverty that Jamaica is steeped in, as a viewer I was put in an uncomfortable situation. The film can evoke a whole array of emotions and even defence mechanisms as it attacks the viewer on a personal level, but that also gives it power as an “eye-opener” type of film, and is not easily forgotten.

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